Today is October 5th, 2021 and that marks a major milestone in the world of Microsoft. Windows 11 has now been officially released to the public and with that, it’s time to break down what the release offers and decide if it’s worth upgrading to or just wait till your next computer purchase.
It was only back in late August that Microsoft confirmed the release date for Windows 11 and only back on June 24th this year, when Windows 11 was officially announced. This makes it the shortest announcement to release of any version of Windows.
Windows has traditionally been on a 3-year release cadence, this is very different. Those who follow Microsoft will know that we were told Windows 10 would be the last version of Windows, but here we are with Windows 11 rolling out to the world.
This reference to Win10 being the last, was really an attempt to maintain the same top-level name and allow users to stop worrying about which version they were using, as the modern- always up-to-date Windows would just be the latest thanks to Windows Updates. The reality is, people did still care about the version of Windows they were on, particularly in relation to the build number changes that came from Windows 10’s 2 major releases per year.
As an early adopter, I’m always keen to see what’s new from Microsoft, so I’ve been using Windows 11 as a Windows Insider since the day it was made available, across the 3 PCs I use and can now detail what works well and what doesn’t.
Windows 11 includes the following features, but is it enough to incentivise people to upgrade (it is free by the way)?
New start menu (Centered)
The new start menu is a dramatic shift from what we had in Windows 10. Live tiles are officially dead, instead offering more of what users want, access to their applications and recent documents. This second part reflects Microsoft’s direction in Office 365 where your most recently modified documents are right to hand, regardless of their storage location.
This actually works really well and I can’t say I miss live tiles at all, even having been a developer around the Windows 8 launch that leveraged them, I’m happy to say goodbye.
Importantly, the Windows 11 start menu is fast to launch when you smash that Windows key. You’ll also be happy to know start menu search works exactly the same way but does have a couple of new tricks.
Firstly, I really love the speed at which it returns results, it is dramatically improved over Win10 and especially so when returning web results. If your search includes a company name, it’ll return useful details in a pane on the right, like a Map (powered by Bing), office hours and contact details.
Secondly, I like the balance of results. In previous versions of Windows, it was far too keen to throw apps at you, but this indexer feels smarter, returning recent documents at the top for some searches, web results for others, while still confidently delivering you an application like Excel, after typing just ‘Ex’ and the system autocomplete the rest. At that point, you can press enter and the app launches.
Positioning apps on your screen, especially for those with multi-monitors has always cost us more time than it should. Thankfully Microsoft has gone a long way in addressing this long-standing issue, introducing Snap Layouts in Win11.
These work fairly intuitively, with the regular snap maintained, but hover over the maximize/restore button and you’ll be presented with a new flyout menu. This menu contains an array of positions you can snap that application too.
This small, but elegant solution guides you not only through the initial application snap but then presents you with an overview of all open application windows and allows you to simply click to allocate remaining windows to remaining spaces.
Your choices when it comes to snap layouts include (in percentages) a 50/50 split, 70/30, 33/33/33 in the top row of the 6. The bottom row offers a vertical split as well as horizontal one. The first is a full-height left pane, consuming half the display, with the second half divided in half (50/50 vertically). Next, we have a quad split, with snaps in each corner of the interface, but this has been available before. Finally, you have the choice of a 25/50/25 split which can work really well.
I found myself using this every single day. As good as this new feature is, we always want more.
Many multi-monitor users had found their way to 3rd party software solutions for this exact problem and personally, I fell in love with FancyZones, which is part of the PowerToys suite. This allows for absolute configuration of any size and combination you want, it really is brilliant and I would have liked to see that included in Windows.
Like many, I moved to an ultra-wide monitor years ago and if you’re in that camp, you really want 4, 6 or even 8 applications side-by-side and that’s just not possible with the Windows 11 snap layouts.
Ultimately, this feature is a great inclusion, but some will still find its limitations.
While Skype technically still exist, Teams is now integrated right into the operating system in Windows 11, so Skype’s days are definitely numbered. Microsoft has made it really simple for people to ‘Chat’ to contacts in their Microsoft Account.
For those of us who use other messaging and video conferencing platforms like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Duo or others, this really will take some convincing to get your contact list to move. I’d much rather see some integration with 3rd party services.
My family leverage Facebook Messenger and therefore I don’t use the Consumer edition of Teams to communicate with them. The good news is that Microsoft does enable you to customise the default apps on the Taskbar and you can remove ‘Chat’ if you don’t want or need it.
If you already use Teams for work, having a separate app for your personal life is good structural separation. Even though not all the features Teams (in business) offers, it is pretty functional with group chats and video calls on offer. If someone in your contact list doesn’t have Teams, it’ll just send them an email (assuming you have an email against their contact).
While you can chat 1-on-1 or in groups, share GIFs or files, make video and audio calls, even check your Calendar, what I find interesting is that scheduling meetings feel really undercooked. When you create a meeting, you can’t add attendees from your contact list or chat history, instead, you need to create what is essentially an appointment, then copy a meeting link and share that manually with your contacts.. weird Microsoft, please make this the same experience as it is in the enterprise, just use the person’s contact list to power the directory of people.
I often have a different headset and webcam configurations and I’ll regularly dive into Settings > Devices to confirm my config is correct. Strangely the consumer version of teams doesn’t include this, so you launch into a meeting before you can access this.. again, some weird choices happening here. Let’s hope Teams for consumers becomes as successful as the business equivalent and builds out 3rd party integrations to make this far more powerful than it is today.
This is easily my least favourite feature in Windows 11. This attempts to be useful by providing quick access to widgets of information, surfacing the latest stock price, news items, weather information, recent photos and emails. In theory, this sounds great, but practically I always want to dive deeper into each of these items, so it’d be a 2-step process every-single time.
While Widgets may appeal to some Windows 11 users, personally it was one of the first things I tried and then decided to disable. I went back a number of times over a number of weeks to determine if I could find benefit, unfortunately, I could not. This feels as much about getting eyeballs on Microsoft services as anything else, thankfully you can also disable this in Taskbar Settings.
Windows Store update
Microsoft has really struggled to organise the Windows Store in a logical manner that made it useful and inviting for users to engage with. Thankfully the Windows 11 revision moves the needle considerably don’t these fronts. Browsing Apps, Games and Movies is really easy and there are big, bold visuals to get your attention, while a quick scroll down the page quickly gets you to the technical detail we’re often looking for, as well as user ratings and content reviews to assist in your decision making process.
Make no mistake, there is still a large percentage of application and game installs that will happen outside the Windows Store, but if developers and content creators do choose to publish their content through the Win11 Store, they can know that users will actually be able to find their work, instead of it being lost in the abyss that was the Win10 Store (and 8/8.1 for that matter).
The buying process is simple and fast, particularly given most will have a credit card attached to their Microsoft Account. The one complaint I have is the lack of a dedicated hardware purchasing section. Microsoft and partners, are now selling hardware through the Store on Xbox and it should be equally as easy on Windows. What’s strange is that there are hardware items like keyboards, mice and other peripherals for sale if you search for them, but the link simply takes you out to the web. This needs to be integrated into the Windows Store app, making everything at https://microsoft.com/hardware available.
Finally, Microsoft has unified the Settings interface. What has been a multi-year endeavour to replace the Control Panel, has finally evolved to the point where it feels finished. All your settings in one place in one consistent interface, it’s actually a joy to use.
If you’re a die-hard control panel guy, then you’ll get comfort in knowing it is still included in Windows 11, but honestly, the number of times I found myself wanting or needing to go out to the Control Panel to find an option or setting that wasn’t available in the Windows 11 Settings app was zero.
In exploring how deep they went, I did encounter just 1 or 2 places that launched a legacy dialogue window, but you really have to be 3-4 levels deep before you face that. Practically I think Microsoft can call this one mission accomplished and in many ways, this will be a bigger change for users than the start menu.
Action Center update
Applications will often send you notifications with the TOast UI in the lower-right of your display. This notification then becomes part of your notification history in the Actions panel. In Windows 10 you used to be able to use Windows key + A to access this panel that also included quick access controls like flight mode, brightness and volume settings.
In Windows 11, Microsoft has decided to break these into two separate interfaces and while it took some time to adjust to, I don’t mind it. If you right-click on any of the quick actions and select Go to Settings, that’s context-aware and launches the Setting app specifically to the advanced configuration for that item (like WiFi settings for example).
On a touchscreen, tapping and sliding your finger left and right to adjust volume and display brightness, continues to be one of the fastest ways to tweak these settings.
My one complaint is the Calendar widget at the bottom of the actions pane. It’s basically useless, as it doesn’t surface events in your calendar and double-clicking on the day, does nothing other than highlighting. This should open the new appointment dialogue box in your default Calendar app.
There are a number of new system requirements for Windows 11, so be sure to check Microsoft’s website on System Requirements to confirm your computer is capable of running it.
The short scope is this, with any computer made in the past few years, it’ll be fine and performance is likely to actually increase. If your computer is older than that, you may run into some issues, but the hardware checker pre-upgrade will certainly let you know prior to an upgrade.
Right now, if your PC doesn’t meet the requirements (let’s imagine an OEM hasn’t released WIndows 11 drivers) then you may not even see the Upgrade option in Windows Update. If you do and proceed, the update will likely take between half an hour and 45 minutes depending on your hardware configuration.
The decision to revisit that position and to once again progress the branding number really has no correlation to the scale of the update for Win11. You may be expecting a completely new version of Windows, given the major build number increment, but this really is a more refined Windows 10, one that finally completes some ideas that were first introduced back in Windows 8.
Sure Windows 11 has a couple of new ideas, but ultimately it feels like a UI refresh on top, rather than a ground-up rewrite.
So now for that ultimate question, should you bother with an upgrade, or simply wait for your next PC purchase?
I think you absolutely should, assuming it’s not more than 3-4 years old.
As annoying as OS upgrades can be, this upgrade really delivers a fit and finish to Windows that really wasn’t there in Windows 10. That Settings menu for example, finally shows the comprehensive list of settings in the modern UI that started back in Windows 8. Sure we don’t have the crazy forced-full-screen from Win8, but what we do have is pages and pages of consistency, something never available in Windows 10.
The start menu is a nice update, but hardly a driving force in your decision to upgrade. Above everything it’s the additional performance, from the same hardware, that should drive you to upgrade to Windows 11.
More information at Windows 11.